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Starting points

When starting a research project what do you begin with? There are numerous entry points for research, such as:-

  • A hypothesis to prove or disprove
  • A problem in practice. An idea to test
  • A general area worth investigating
  • A phenomenon / concept in need of description or explanation
  • A data gap to fill
  • A service to evaluate
  • A wish to undertake library study, interviewing, or use some research skill
  • A piece of commissioned research
  • A course assignment

Concentrate for a moment on the left column and think about a possible piece of research from your area of professional practice or study which fits each of these six starting points.

Now look at our example of a social work hypothesis -

A hypothesis for testing is that the labour cost saved by using a computer to handle client's welfare benefits inquiries will more than compensate for the cost of the computer and software.

A problem may well be something that is exercising your mind within a work context, such as -

'The Social Services Committee has proposed that in future all new projects are handled using the PRINCE (Projects in a Controlled Environment) project management system. Few if any staff have knowledge or experience of PRINCE. What would be the most effective way for handling its implementation?'

An idea can start off as something quite vague, though it will have to be refined eventually into a precise research proposal. For example -

'I think it would be worth testing out whether a computer program for route planning would help social workers organise their home visits more effectively'.

A general area for research can also start as something imprecise, like -

'In my job we spend a lot of time on home visiting, and I think it would be worth reviewing this practice given the number of occasions when we call on someone only to find nobody at home'.

A data gap can be a hole in our field of human knowledge, but more likely it is a localised gap which can be filled either by a small local study, or by carrying out a search to find where the knowledge is available. For example -

'The child protection team has guidelines to help indicate whether an injury to a child might be non-accidental. However, the elderly persons' team does not have the equivalent for elderly clients. Such guidelines must exist somewhere: could this be researched and some material provided for the team?'.

Service evaluation is becoming quite widespread as a result of Citizens' Charters and commitments made in the Department's community care plan. A project might be -

'to evaluate user satisfaction with our appointments and reception arrangements in the area office'.

The point is that research protects can have very varying origins, and be approached in a variety of ways. A really large project which may involve a team of staff, last a long time, and cost, perhaps, several hundreds of thousands of pounds, will begin with careful planning

  • Current research will be reviewed to see what has already been done in the chosen subject area
  • a case will be worked out and presented to justify the project
  • referees will be sought to give a view on the proposal
  • people or commissioners will be approached to see if they are willing to provide funds
  • permission will be asked for access to the required data, if this is confidential or under someone's control
  • research methods will be scrutinised
  • perhaps a scoping or feasibility study will be undertaken, maybe even a pilot study (that is, a try-out of the research methodology).

All of these will need to show positive outcomes or fall into place if the research is to go ahead.

In contrast a student research project, or a piece of work undertaken by a care professional, may have to be planned and implemented in a very short period of time, and with little or no budget. Senior staff responsible for management and planning often seek some research to inform their decision-making with minimal consideration of the needs of a well-conducted project.

Almost all research in practice represents a compromise between such pressures as these, and the researcher's wish to meet the criteria of good research. This dilemma is taken up again later in this resource when we look at practical issues for research.

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